The “Libertarian Movement”—An Oxymoron?

I first encountered the libertarian philosophy almost 30 years ago. Back then, I had high hopes that the libertarian movement would expand and generate an intellectual, moral, and political reform, rekindling the spirit of liberty in the land and steering us away from ever-bigger government.

How naïve I was. Unity is the key to success for any movement, and unity seems to be the one thing that libertarians are constitutionally incapable of achieving. That is why there has been no progress in building a libertarian movement since the Libertarian Party candidate for president received over a million votes in 1980.

The basic problem with libertarians is this: while they preach tolerance of individual differences in theory, they can’t stand ideological nonconformity in practice. If you’ve ever spent time around libertarians, you know what I mean. Two libertarians may agree on 95 percent of issues, but they will end up arguing passionately and splitting over the other 5 percent. Essentially, for many libertarians, libertarianism has become a religion. Each faction has its own orthodoxy, and any self-professed libertarian who deviates from the orthodoxy is treated like a heretic or apostate. Thus, a potential ally in the fight for freedom becomes Public Enemy Number One, drawing fire from other libertarians that would more profitably be expended against those working for an expansion of government power.

The fault lines on which the would-be libertarian movement perennially cracks up are these: minarchists (advocates of limited government) versus anarcho-capitalists (no government); believers in Deity versus atheists; and idealists versus pragmatists.

Some libertarians are still peeved that the Federalists prevailed over the anti-federalists to secure the adoption of the United States Constitution in 1788. Good grief! They remind me of the cranks who rant about dead Americans who owned slaves generations ago. It’s today that counts. Minarchists and anarcho-capitalists both believe that government is way too big. Instead of locking horns over a moot point, minarchist and anarcho-capitalist libertarians should focus on their shared conviction that today’s government is too big. Since that is so, why not work together to achieve at least some rollback of Leviathan?

Religious differences are another stumbling block to libertarian unity. Some libertarians base their pro-liberty stance on human reason, while others believe that liberty is God’s will. Fine. People can disagree about God, and still collaborate to defend individual liberty on the political front. However, some libertarians disdain any such truce. For example, a leading vendor of libertarian literature features atheistic literature. This is unquestionably their right, but from the standpoint of building a libertarian movement, it is short-sighted. Both atheists and Christians may be either libertarian or non-libertarian. Why, then, identify libertarianism with atheism? The implicit message is: Christians, you don’t belong here. This makes no sense, because, numerically, there are far more Christians than atheists in this country, and Christians are natural allies in the pro-freedom ranks, because of the Bible’s ethical teachings. (In fact, libertarian icon John Locke’s immensely influential 17th-century writings on the rights to life and property are simply restatements of the biblical commandments not to kill or steal). Who cares if we disagree about metaphysics? Let’s make common cause against the enemies of freedom who threaten our well-being in the here and now.

Another impediment to a “libertarian movement” is that some libertarians are so idealistic that they are absolutists. They brook no compromise—no “leaking” or deviation—from a pure libertarian ideal. The idealists don’t want to soil their hands by cooperating with libertarian pragmatists who, while sharing the idealists’ preference for maximum freedom, are willing to work on the margins to nibble away at government power and restore liberty in increments. No unity there.

Another problem is that some of the idealists are so disgusted with the current situation that they have chosen to drop out—not only from political activity, but even from the intellectual battle. They remind me of children who don’t like the way a game is going, so they get huffy and quit. Over 200 years ago, Edmund Burke wrote: “All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Whatever liberties human beings have enjoyed have only come as the reward of valiantly winning and vigilantly defend those liberties—in other words, from some individuals making sacrifices for the sake of others. To the degree that libertarianism allows the cult of the self to eclipse the cause of liberty, then libertarianism is a self-defeating ideology.

A “libertarian movement” will remain an oxymoron, unless libertarians cease their fratricidal feuding, agree to disagree about certain things, and quit allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the better.